Monthly Archives: August 2009

News

One of the things I’m most pleased about having incorporated into this blog is the ‘Stagecoach in the News’ section at the top of the home page. I have a script which does a search for every mention of Stagecoach in the past few days of which the most recent seven are then incorporated into the page. I hope it keeps visitors coming back because they have a one-stop source of Stagecoach news. When I started the blog it was ‘Megabus in the News’ and then became ‘Stagecoach in the news’ when the depot lost the Megabus work and I had to drive a regular bus :-(

However, quite a lot of visitors arrive on the blog having used many different search terms, few of which include the word ‘stagecoach’. Which has led to me wonder whether I should be broader in what news is shown. Instead of just Stagecoach news it could be bus news from First, Arriva, Go-Ahead, Veolia, National Express etc. as well as Stagecoach.

Click here to see what ‘Stagecoach in the News’ and ‘Bus Companies in the News’ would be showing now. Because there are many more stories when all bus companies are included each story will scroll to the bottom fairly quickly and then disappear. Also when something big is happening, like the possible Nat Ex takeover at present, the stories come even faster and appear to be dominated by that company. No Stagecoach story will ever be missed but it will not be viewable for as long as before.

You can vote for which newsfeed you’d prefer in the left hand column. Voting closes in 7 days.

UPDATE:

After 7 days the votes were 61% for all bus operators and 39% for Stagecoach only. The newsfeed has been changed accordingly. Comments (good or bad) on the feed are still welcome.

Cathy Buckle’s letter

Swine Flu has officially arrived in Zimbabwe. A ZBC TV news bulletin this week reported that there were a number of confirmed cases of swine flu in Mutare. The report said that people should not panic because hospitals were prepared, staff had been trained and information would soon be disseminated to private practitioners. Special attention is apparently going to be given to critical areas like the country’s border posts.

This latter cannot come soon enough and I am sure that every poor soul who has had to endure the horrors of Beitbridge border post will agree with me. In the last few days I have met two Zimbabweans who have been through the Beitbridge border post this month. They say it is hell, a nightmare, a national disgrace, a shame on our country, a deep embarrassment to Zimbabwe. And this is being polite!

When you arrive at Beitbridge from South Africa you are overwhelmed by touts. Aggressive young men in their twenties who swarm around you and solicit bribes in order for you to proceed through the formalities. The touts control the speed and progress of everything: the queues, the forms, the stamps and signatures, the customs inspections and the final scrap of paper, the gate pass, that allows you get through the boom and into Zimbabwe. Both of the travellers I spoke to said they simply found it impossible to proceed without giving in to the demands for bribes. Every time they got near the counters in the border post the touts and their customers would push in ahead of them with great piles of papers and none of the officials on duty were interested in intervening, not immigration, security, customs or tax collectors. Touts appeared to be making an average of 500 Rand, or 50 US dollars per customer – half the month’s pay of a trained teacher in Zimbabwe.

The toilets at the border are apparently a swamp, there is no toilet paper, no towels and no way at all to keep yourself clean. Everyone waits till they are through the border and then pull up on the roadside and relieve themselves in the bush. If we are to believe ZBC, it is into this madness of Beitbridge border post that there is going to be swine flu detection and control. Pardon the pun, but pigs might fly!

Zimbabwe’s unity government has been in place for six months but it is still the thieves, con-men, blackmailers and bullies that are manning the entry points into our country. Until they are gone and until Zimbabwe can clean up the shop window to the country we haven’t got a hope of controlling swine flu, of tempting tourists into the country or of getting any of the overflow of visitors from the 2010 World Cup football games in South Africa. Its about time that some of our senior leaders went incognito to Zimbabwe’s borders and saw the thieves and bullies holding tourists, visitors and returning residents to ransom.

Booker prize nominee prefers driving a bus

Magnus Mills’s debut novel was nominated for the Booker prize, but he still loves his day job as a bus driver.

magnus mills

“Lunchtime at Café Express, York Way, King’s Cross. Stocky workmen in luminous jackets drink mugs of tea. A radio plays bouzouki music. In a corner, one of Britain’s most original novelists bends over pie, chips and peas on his break from driving the 390.”

“Magnus Mills, 55, found fame as the busman whose first novel was shortlisted for the 1998 Booker Prize. The Restraint Of Beasts was a comedy of manipulation and death among fence-builders. The similarly menacing, hilarious All Quiet On The Orient Express followed. Mills moved on to enigmatic allegories, like Explorers Of The New Century, but the concise prose, pared characterisation and Flann O’Brien-meets-Les Dawson humour remained.”

“His sixth novel, The Maintenance Of Headway, published this month, is a lighter, comedic parade of bus drivers trying to save minutes and inspectors slowing them down to “maintain headway”– keep buses equally spaced. It is a chance for Mills to set the record straight: hectic roads and inspectors delay buses, not drivers.”

The rest of this story can be read here.

I’d not heard of Mills but reading the reviews of his books on Amazon makes me curious enough to want to read several of them.

What’s this crop?

One of the pleasures of driving the same route everyday is to observe how the landscape varies with the season. When I started going to Salisbury in November of last year most fields had been ploughed after the last harvest and lay dormant. Some had been autumn sown but that wasn’t apparent until Spring time. I saw others being sown in the Spring. At first the dull earth colour seemed to gain a green haze which slowly eveloped into a green covering which slowly reached higher. The rape flowered in April and May, the poppies grown for the seeds used in medicine flowered in June and July and the cereals such as barley and wheat ripened to glorious gold this month. The harvest has now been going on for 4 or 5 weeks and there is still more to be done. There are a couple of crops which I’ve not seen before and don’t know what they are, today I was able to picture on of them. Can anyone help me out with the answer?

what crop is this

Test Valley School yet again

They’re on holiday now but something happened a couple of days before they broke up and I didn’t have time to blog about it then. Then, last week, I was asked about the incident because the County Council wanted confirmation of the individuals involved.

No sooner had I left the school than all hell broke loose, I’ve said this many times before but on a scale of 1 to 10 it was probably 9. Not 10 because they didn’t set light to the seats! I pulled over at about the only possible spot and told them very clearly that we wouldn’t be moving until they were all seated. Moan, groan, scream, refuse to sit down …. made no difference to me I wasn’t going until they sat down. Finally they did sit and off we went. But as I expected they were imediately on their feet, fighting, swinging from the poles, running up and down the bus again. Just before their destination there is a few 100 yards of narrow winding lane in which two large vehicles can’t pass, you often to have to brake sharply in order to get over if another large vehicle appears round the bend. I stopped across a very minor side road before this because I wasn’t prepared to drive those few 100 yards with them running about. I told them again that we wouldn’t move until they were seated, at which point a Police car pulled and asked if I’d broken down. I told him the bus was fine and the problem was the kids and their refusal to be seated. The PC came on board and gave them a lecture and still some refused to sit! Next a small car pulled up and a woman came to the bus – a teacher from the school who was concerned to see the Police on a school bus. The PC told her the story and to her credit she went ballistic with the kids. She took the name and class of everyone on the bus and wanted to make those still refusing to sit get off the bus and walk. However, the PC advised against this because they’d have to walk down the narrow road I’d described. In the end they remained on the with the PC saying he’d escort me to where they get off. A Police escort, that’s a first!

Day-tripping pensioners

“We spend more on concessionary travel than any other public service – waste collection, street cleaning, ground maintenance,” said Huw Bowen, Chief Executive, Chesterfield Borough Council. What an amazing statistic! This quote was taken from an article in The Guardian on 31 July.

Here is the article in full:-

The day-tripping pensioners who are costing local councils dear.

National concessionary travel scheme leaves popular destinations with bills and job losses as funding falls short.

It was sunny, so Southport was just the ticket for a spot of lunch and a bracing walk on the pier.

Except Colin and Margaret Lee didn’t need a ticket, merrily waving their concessionary passes as they hopped from Lancaster, to Preston, then to Southport and back again on their spur of the moment day trip.

Like 11 million other over-60s and disabled people, they are the winners in the highly lauded English National Concessionary Travel scheme introduced in April last year, which affords them free bus travel countrywide.

So why, then, as they stepped off the X2 Stagecoach service from Preston to Southport could the sound of gnashing teeth and rustling spread sheets be heard emanating from Preston Town Hall?

“Nothing to do with the scheme. It’s wonderful,” agreed Eric Fazackerley, deputy leader of Preston City Council. “It’s just the way it is funded.”

If there are winners, there must be losers. And more than 50 councils have now lost a total of £30m as a direct result of the scheme, according to the Local Government Association, which is calling for an urgent review of funding. A dozen of them, including Preston, are members of the One Million Club, whose shortfall exceeds £1m a year, with unexpected and often “catastrophic” consequences.

Preston’s downfall is its 80-bay “hub” bus station – allegedly the second biggest in western Europe.

“It was a friend who told us you can get to all sorts of places from Preston,” said Margaret, 71, from Glasson Dock, near Lancaster. “It’s the first time we’ve done Southport.” She and Colin, 72, plan to visit again, joining Alan and Doreen Heywood, also from Lancaster and, as regulars, on their seventh visit this year.

“It’s a wonderful service,” said Doreen, 66. “We’ve been all over. Every week we go somewhere.”

“Much better than sitting at home getting rigor mortis”, agreed Alan 75.

Each morning, dozens queue for buses at Preston bus station. But, while most of them won’t actually set foot in Preston, under the scheme local councils are legally obliged to pick up the bill for every journey that starts in their area.

“Say someone is coming from east Lancashire, wanting to go to Southport, or Blackpool, then we pay twice. We pay from Preston, where they change for Southport, or Blackpool, and then we pay from Preston back to wherever they came from. And they don’t set foot in Preston itself, except moving from one bay to another at the bus station,” said Councillor Fazackerley. “It’s ridiculous and unfair.”

The government, which insists the scheme is “fully funded”, has allocated £212m in special grants to cover shortfalls. The promise was no council should lose out. But, somehow, it isn’t reaching all the right places.

Popular seaside towns, such as Blackpool, Scarborough and the resorts of Torbay in Devon, are significantly out of pocket after paying for the departure journeys of every one of their concessionary visitors. The recession has seen an increase in uptake. And “staycations” promise it will rise yet further.

Meanwhile, transport hubs suffer without gaining any of the income day-trippers spend, or the council tax they pay at home.

Chesterfield Borough Council is in dire straits. As transport hub, it is £1.6m down, which would equate to a 37% increase in council tax for each household and, as a result, is axing 45 jobs.

“We spend more on concessionary travel than any other public service – waste collection, street cleaning, ground maintenance,” said Huw Bowen, the chief executive.

“I’ve had letters from individual senior citizens and pensioners’ groups who are really very concerned 45 jobs are being lost because of it. I tell them, it’s a good scheme in terms of social inclusion and the green agenda. It’s right you should have it. And they say: ‘We could pay half fare, if you’re able to save the jobs.’ It’s quite sad. But it doesn’t work like that.”

Torbay’s deputy mayor, Chris Lewis, believes with “smart cards” the government should be able to work out a better funding formula. Coach parties descend on Torquay, Paignton and Brixham. “But where the coach companies used to take them round the bay, now they say: ‘Go to Brixham. There’s a nice open-top bus and it’s free.’”

Queues start at 9.30am and it has cost the council £2m so far, meaning cuts in tourism promotion, as well as adult services and children’s budgets.

“It’s a very serious problem,” said Oxford City Council’s deputy leader, Ed Turner. One in five middle managers jobs are under threat to recoup the £1.1m shortfall, projected to rise to £1.7m in 2010. Of their 8 million tourists, a significant proportion from the UK are concessionary visitors. Parking revenue has dropped, funding for the municipal museum has been withdrawn, cuts have been made in civic pride projects such as Britain in Bloom and warm front initiates have suffered. “Truth is, people in Oxford are suffering because of what should be a good thing,” said Turner.

The government has now acknowledged there are problems in the way the grants are allocated. They are in consultation but that is set to last well into next year. And, affected councils worry, with many others not having the same problems – some even making a profit – there may not be support for change.

Meanwhile, those on the X2 regular Preston to Southport service were blissfully unaware of exactly who had funded half of their day trip. “We thought it was Lancashire County Council,” said Alan. “Doesn’t seem right, now you think of it”.